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The Banality of Evil, in Russia and in America

It’s a common flaw among intellectuals that they tend to impose their beautiful, compelling concepts on areas of real life where they don’t fit. A famous example is Hannah Arendt’s “the banality of evil” (the actual phrase wasn’t hers), which she applied to Adolf Eichmann, one of the chief plotters of the Holocaust, whom Israeli agents grabbed from his hiding place in Buenos Aires in 1960 and brought back to Israel for trial. Arendt, who had soured on her earlier support for Zionism, took Eichmann’s claims to have only been following orders at face value and deemed him a cog in the Nazi bureaucratic machine—a gray man who committed enormous evil as part of his humdrum job. That was an absurd error where the fanatical Jew hater Eichmann was concerned, and Arendt came under justifiably withering criticism for it.

But the concept stuck, because it certainly points to something real that countless Nazis and other servants of tyrannical regimes display. Here is an example: A friend of mine used to work for the Office of Special Investigations, the unit of the Department of Justice that hunts Nazi war criminals in America. Once she went to confront one of these murderers, who had been hiding in plain sight ever since he lied to get into the country after World War II. She came armed with proof, including a photograph of this individual as a young man in his butcher’s uniform. The man readily confessed to what he was done, and as my friend was preparing to leave with this statement, he asked her for a favor. He wanted to keep the picture, to remember the good old days when he was a handsome young dude in uniform. That is the banality of evil: a human being so oblivious to the heinous deeds he has committed, that all he can think of is nostalgia for the good old days when he committed them.

Our times are rich with the banality of evil. Let us imagine a Russian soldier in Ukraine today. Victor grew up poor in the freezing cold provincial city of Arkhangelsk, with an alcoholic father, a former sailor in the Soviet navy who was fond of reminiscing about the good old days, when the world respected and feared the Russian military. Victor was drafted, but he went willingly enough, thinking he would enjoy some of the same perks Dad did and maybe save up enough money to propose to his girlfriend, Kate, who likes to sing karaoke. But being in the army sucked even before the war began. The food was shit, and his officers were brutal drunks on the take who would whale on the recruits at the slightest excuse. It was only tolerable thanks to Sergei, who had been his best friend since elementary school and had joined up with him. Back in February, Victor and Sergei and their buds were told they were going on maneuvers, only to find themselves in a shooting war against Ukrainian Nazis armed by those American and German bastards! So far from welcoming their liberators, the locals curse them out in fluent Russian. Victor has heard rumors that another unit fragged their commanding officer, which he and Sergei talked about but didn’t have the guts to try themselves. Then, a couple of weeks ago, his platoon walked right into an ambush in some shitty Kyiv suburb. Sergei was one of half a dozen of the guys killed, bleeding out right in the middle of the street while the local Nazi yokels cheered from a nearby apartment building. Well, Ivan said he heard them cheering, and that was good enough for Victor, who stormed the building with a bunch of the other survivors. They kicked in an apartment door, shot some ugly bearded dude who was trying to block the way, then took turns with the guy’s wife, who was a hot little number, and c’mon, it’s been, like, months since Victor saw Kate. Yeah, there were a couple little kids in the place, and yeah, they ended up dead too, just like their parents, but Victor didn’t have nothin’ to do with that. And you know what? If he survives this war and marries Kate, he’s going to be a really good dad, except when he gets drunk like his old man and starts hitting out blindly at the people he loves, after which he’ll always be super-apologetic to his wife and kids. He won’t ever talk about that terrible day in March 2022, though it will come back to him in nightmares. So who can blame him, really? Who indeed. Certainly not his fellow Russians, who feel about stuff like that the same way most Americans did about their troops’ massacre of hundreds of Vietnamese civilians at My Lai in 1968.

You don’t like my story or my analogy, dear reader, now do you? So let’s take a real-life example from our own free and enlightened country that doesn’t even involve any bloodshed. The lesser-known dark horseman of the apocalypse called book censorship has now pulled up in a certain small town in Texas, where dangerous books that contain “filthy pornography,” such as, er, beloved children’s author Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen, are flying off the shelves to be locked away where nobody can read them. Maybe they’ll be burned later on. The director of the library system has taken the initiative herself to lock away a couple of books in a file cabinet, including one about farting snowman that is clearly an offense to Christian decency. Call her Gil T. Bystander. Now, perhaps Ms. Bystander is secretly on the side of the Resistance, and is protecting those books from the flames of Christian MAGA wrath, like the protagonist “fireman” Montague does in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. But I think not. She also fired branch library director Suzette Baker for “insubordination” in that she dared to stand up to the censorship push, which is led by some resident with an Excel spreadsheet of “filthy pornography” and holy fire in her eye, and a judge who chairs the county’s governing body.

If Ms. Bystander isn’t a secret resister, maybe she’s a censorious person who was just waiting for an excuse to burn books? Not bloody likely, dear reader—she is a librarian. According to her LinkedIn page, she has been in her library system director job for over eight years. No, I suspect she is a frightened person, scared of losing her job, terrified of what the neighbors and her fellow churchgoers will say. Does she really want to be a hero like Ms. Baker, and risk having Governor Greg Abbott and Senator Ted Cruz and every MAGA asshole keyboard warrior in the world attack her as a “groomer” who wants children to be sexually abused? Would you want to risk it, dear reader? Many if not all of us Americans will soon be confronted with that question, and we will have to decide for ourselves whether to surrender to the banality of evil.

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